Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Power of Wikipedia

Wikipedia holds a lot of power—power for good, and power for evil. Don't get me wrong: I love Wikipedia. Whenever I need a quick orientation to a topic unfamiliar to me or to recall a general fact that I've heard but can't quite remember, I go to Wikipedia. But, Wikipedia has it's limitations, including a fair amount of unverified or simply incorrect material. This doesn't mean anything close to saying Wikipedia is terrible and should be banned from your consciousness, but it does mean Wikipedia readers need to be careful with the claims they read.

Unfortunately, many readers simply aren't critical or careful when they turn to an "authoritative" source.

I was reminded of this in a forceful way as some research led me to an intriguing connection between an image posted on Wikipedia and a current internet meme. It all started when I was skimming the headlines on Google News. As I glanced past an announcement that yet another grocery store has agreed to pull ground beef products that include lean finely textured beef, an image caught my eye. It was an image I had seen before, and it's likely you've seen it as well, if you've read much about "pink slime" or mechanically separated meat, or spend much time on Facebook. I won't copy it here—you can see it in any of the links below. It's a picture from a factory in which a smooth pink substance is serpentining down from a machine into a cardboard box. According to the meme, the image depicts mechanically separated meat (in this case, chicken), the product of an industrial food process to recover difficult-to-separate meat fragments from bone and fat.

Clicking on the image, I was directed to a WKBW 7 Eyewitness News story announcing that Kroger would be dropping products containing lean finely textured beef.  The story was accompanied by an uncredited photo cropped from the meme.  I was surprised an intrigued that an internet meme image would end up as a news photo from an established journalism agency, particularly as the source and content of the image has been questioned. So, I decided to delve into the history of the image, as recorded on the internet, to see what I could find.

Using Google Search by Image, I traced the image back to a number of blog entries in January 2009 (Between Showers, 1/2/09; XXXICANA, 1/4/09; One Day I'll Have Everything, 1/20/09).  The image was submitted to Buzzfeed, which apparently doesn't date postings, but several blog posts that source Buzzfeed suggest it was up by at least late January (Dlisted, 1/20/09; The Sectional, 1/23/09), and it kept spreading from there.

In August 2009, the image was picked up by the nutrition blog Fooducate; and then by Early Onset of Night (9/28/10), who added a snarky commentary ("Say hello to mechanically separated chicken. It's what all fast-food chicken is made from...."), which was pulled into the meme. (The source from Fooducate provided in one of the follow-up posts on "Early Onset.") This text was rebutted by Snopes shortly thereafter (suggesting quick adoption of the text), though they don't comment directly on the image.

So, where did the image come from? Well, several of the initial blog posts (TYWKIDBI, 1/16/09; Life as an Artificial Lifeform, 1/18/09; J-Walk Blog, 1/21/09; Gangster says relax, 1/21/09) credit the image to the Wikipedia article on mechanically separated meat. The article history indicates that the image was added on November 18, 2008 by "Infinitrium" (no user profile available).  The image was removed from the article on January 17, but not before unleashing a meme with currency 3 years later.  (The image was deleted from Wikipedia after a few months due to lack of source information.)

In case you missed it, here's a recap of the story:

  1. Random user posts photo of unknown source on Wikipedia article.
  2. Photo is removed from Wikipedia article 8 weeks later, just after the photo has gone viral in the blogosphere.
  3. Image remains in circulation for 3 years, until it is picked up as the news photo by an ABC affiliate in Buffalo, NY.
All of this because a few people saw an unappetizing image attached to a Wikipedia article and didn't stop to question whether the image had any credibility. Its credibility came from simply being on Wikipedia (and later from meme status). Now, Wikipedia does have standards for article quality, mechanisms for quality control, and editorial oversight. And, these mechanisms resulted in the removal of the dubious image relatively shortly after it was posted—but apparently not soon enough. Perhaps if changes were reviewed before going live, this virus would never have been released. (Then again, perhaps that simply isn't feasible given the resources Wikipedia has available.)

But, does any of this really matter? After all, if the photo is indeed what is claimed of it (mechanically separated chicken), then what's the harm?

Well, the actual content of the photo is far from certain.  Shortly after the post on "Early Onset," the Huffington Post picked up the story on mechanically separated meat, featuring the meme image. In an addendum, they claim, 
Although the original source of the photo is unknown, there is little reason to doubt that it is not mechanically separated poultry or pork.... The chicken slurry [Jamie Oliver] made [in an episode of the TV show Food Revolution] bears an uncanny resemblance to the passed-around photo.
(Uncanny resemblance? Is that really the standard we'd like to use for verifying credible evidence?) It's true that, to the untrained eye, the pink substance in the photo does resemble the mechanically separated poultry in a product photo from Inghams, an industrial food ingredients manufacturer. But, Rumors on the Internets points out that an (admittedly unverified) Reddit commenter, who purportedly worked briefly in the meat packing industry, claims that the substance is not mechanically separated poultry. "Rumors" goes on to say,
Why are intelligent people just taking some Tumblr's word for it that this picture is what they say it is, without a single citation or any kind of backup? ... Seriously, what is supposed to be going on here [in the photo]? ... Nobody knows! ... My unverifiable source is just as good as your unverifiable source!
After all, according to Beyond the Moho, the substance in question also resembles pink pulled taffy (seems like a bit of a stretch to me), and an I Can Has Cheezburger poster says the image resembles strawberry soft serve ice cream.

Speaking of which, there is an intriguing copy of the photo at the very beginning of its internet history. A user named Olisaur posted the photo on myLot with the title "ice cream factory" and the caption "Pink ice cream in soft-form coming out of a machine for bulk packaging."  (I couldn't find any other references to the image on myLot, though there is a post in which Olisaur says she worked briefly at an "ice cream place"—was it a factory? a shop?) Unfortunately, myLot doesn't give an exact date for the posting of the image—only saying that it was posted 3 years ago, which (with rounding) could place it just before or just after the image was added to the Wikipedia article. Could this be the original source of the image—an ice cream factory, not a meat packing plant?